Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Nicki and Isabel's "Jelly Filled Doughnuts"


Happy Pokémon Day! February 27th is the anniversary of the first two Pokémon games’ release in Japan, and it’s a minor holiday in my house, as a fun excuse to make Pokémon inspired food, watch some Pokémon shows or movies (we’re going to watch Netflix’s new Pokémon Concierge this year!), and get excited about upcoming games and releases. This year, we’re making a Pokémon Sword and Shield inspired burger-steak curry and I’m making a dessert from the Pokémon Cookbook by Victoria Rosenthal. It’s one of my favorite fandom cookbooks – all the recipes are vegetarian or vegan, to get around the awkward question of where does the meat in the Pokémon universe come from? 

But that’s not all we’re making! Ever since Nicki and Isabel were released, I’ve been dying to do a post about them and Pokémon’s infamous “Jelly Filled Doughnuts”, better – and more accurately! – known as onigiri.

Pokémon was released in the United States in 1998 via two Gameboy games: Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue. The games quickly caught on to be one of the biggest pop culture phenomenon of the late 90’s and early 00’s, and as a kid at the heart of this explosion, I can’t overstate how much of a big deal it was. One of the great things about Pokémon – and probably why it has such lasting, widespread appeal – is that there are so many ways to interact with the franchise, and the marketing doesn’t skew hugely towards one gender or the other. Cool, tough Pokémon like Charizard got pretty similar billing to cute, pink Pokémon like Jigglypuff, and there were so many options for potential favorites that it was easy for any kid to find some creature to attach themselves to. 

One of my petty complaints with Nicki and Isabel’s collection and books is the almost complete lack of mention of Pokémon and other anime that was really popular among kids in 1999. I know AG probably didn’t want to shell out for licensing deals with Nintendo or The Pokémon Company, but their stories just don’t feel accurate without discussing their prized binder of Pokémon cards or begging their parents to take them to see the Pokémon movie in theaters. Maybe the authors were just a little too old to get caught up in Pokémania? 

I’ve also always thought its close overlap with the Beanie Babies crazy helped get millennial children like me very into the “gotta catch ‘em all” aspect of the franchise. Is this why I’m such a crazy toy collector as an adult? Who knows. 

The Pokémon anime was one of the main ways kids like me got hooked on the franchise, because not everyone was allowed to have a Gameboy of their own (me), and not everyone liked video games, but even if you didn’t like video games, the cartoon might appeal to you. Although it was far from the first Japanese cartoon to air on US television, Pokémon was one of if not the first truly mainstream favorites of the 1990’s. 4Kids, the company in charge of dubbing the show into English, decided that American kids wouldn’t understand or be open to certain aspects of the show that reflected its Japanese roots, and so made a lot of strange choices in rewriting the script. One of the most notorious was deciding Brock’s rice balls were actually jelly filled doughnuts:

Onigiri – also known as omusubi or nigirimeshi – are balls of rice with a variety of fillings inside. They’re often compared to sandwiches, as an easy, quick, cheap meal or snack that combines carbs and other ingredients. While the concept of taking a rice ball and stuffing it full of other tasty treats goes way back to ancient Japan, the triangle shape became popular in the 1980’s thanks to a new machine that automated the filling process. Further developments over the last 40 years have created unique ways to prepackage onigiri without making the nori wrapping sticky. The ones we made were an attempt at recreating the “Hawaiian” (spam and pineapple) rice balls from our favorite food hall back in DC. One of my favorite pandemic indulgences was getting take out from the food hall, which often included a sampler of some of my favorite onigiri, and I haven’t been able to find anything close to similar where we are now. One of the many reasons I’m excited to move! 

Even as a kid, I wasn’t convinced the food in the anime was fried dough with fruit jelly inside, because they sure look like rice. I also think 4Kids didn’t anticipate that Pokémon’s widespread popularity would inspire many of its fans – including me – to become absolutely obsessed with Japanese food and culture. I would’ve been more excited if they’d just been straight with me and shown more Japanese food on the show, and then probably begged my parents to make it or take me to a restaurant that made it. While I can’t confidently cite numbers of how many other people were first exposed to Japanese culture and food through Pokémon and franchises like it, I do think it’s a bit of a missed opportunity to highlight how things like this exposed kids like Nicki and Isabel to parts of a culture outside their own!

1 comment:

  1. My brother is probably about the same age as you, and yeah, Pokemon hit him like a ton of bricks, too. I used to play Pokemon with him when I came home from college. I even taped the show for him. And yeah, I did notice that those "doughnuts" seemed awfully un-doughy.